On March 18, the European Central Bank inaugurated its new office building in Frankfurt, Germany. The total construction cost of this skyscraper of glass and steel was a whooping €1.1 billion. In comparison, the new Chancellery building in Berlin, completed in 2001, cost a mere €230 million to build. No wonder 20.000 Europeans gathered in the streets of Frankfurt to protest against the construction of this latest temple of the aspiring EU Empire.
To spend such a huge amount of money on a construction, which in practice fills no other function than a space for technocrats to sit, write, meet and eat lunch, raises several questions about our collective grasp of reality in Europe year 2015. Most importantly, (at least for me) when such non-productive investments (or expenditures rather) are approved and executed during a time when Europe is experiencing the worst economic and social crisis since the Great Depression, it puts into question the functionality and future of democracy itself in the EU.
In 2014, the Government of Norway voted no to support Oslo’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The estimated cost for hosting the Olympic event was approximately €5 billion. A small amount of money for a country with a budget surplus of €40 billion in 2013 and another €800 billion tucked away in a special fund for the day when the oil runs out. Yet, despite their individual and collective richness, a large majority of Oslo’s citizens could think of something better to do for €5 billion (education, environment, health, social, etc.), and the government responded to the opinion polls and redrew its support. That is democracy, transparency and responsible government in action!
Allowing for the construction of a public building that cost €1.1 billion hints of disrespect for democracy, public opinion and public money. Nobody in Europe was asked to reflect, comment, and let alone vote in a referendum to support such excessive expenditures on a project which would generate close to zero positive impact on the local, regional and EU economy. The question about what else we could do for the money was never raised. If the ECB management and staff had settled for a more modest building along the lines of the German Chancellery, €800 million could have been put to good use elsewhere.
I will mention only one simple example to put these large sums of money into a more human perspective. Once upon a time there was a project to reduce unemployment titled “JOBS”. It was funded by the Bulgarian government and had a budget of €22 million. During its 10 years of operation the project created or sustained over 37.700 full-time jobs, according to official Ministry of Labour statistics, and trained 60.900 persons in new work related skills. If given a choice between one shiny ECB building or 40 JOBS projects, there can be no question how the unemployed masses of Greece, Spain, Italy and any other European countries for that matter would vote. But the peoples of Europe are never asked this type of questions, in that simple way.
And that is why I cannot feel pride looking at the architecturally fancy ECB building. On the other hand, I feel great pride when I, and thousands of my fellow citizens, use the 16 kilometers long bridge-tunnel linking Denmark with Sweden. This is a €2 billion infrastructure investment project that has led to a fundamental economic and social transformation of the entire region, increasing integration and improving the well-being for hundreds of thousands of people living, commuting and working in Southern Sweden and Denmark.
No, looking at the new ECB building makes me sad. Its excess does not symbolize economic progress, our collective strength as Europeans or social stability, something we so badly need today. Rather, the ECB building’s dark reflective glass symbolizes the faceless, cold greed of modern capitalism, the deliberate distortion of a market system that was ones free but is now rigged by and to the advantage of central bankers, politicians, stock market speculators and big business.
Only a person and a system incapable of caring about other peoples’ wellbeing can celebrate such money wasting.
Com’on fellow Europeans, we are better than that!